Last week, following my first acquaintance with The Real Junk Food Project, I paid a visit to the Pay-As-You-Feel café to personally meet the people behind it and see the place which has recently come to the fore in food activism and campaigning in the UK and even beyond. Rather inconspicuous from the outside (although cheered up by a colourful and funky banner), the café is home to a growing yet tight-knit family of volunteers and regular visitors.
The first thing that struck me as I entered the café was its very specific atmosphere. Nothing like a formal eating establishment, the place has a homey cosy feel with exceptionally friendly staff mixing with visitors who are welcome to roam around the café, use the free internet and computer area or pop into the kitchen to take some food from the prolific food bank. Quirky pictures hanging on the walls contribute to the café’s unique feel – among them, there are visitors’ own works of art, and many can tell fascinating stories about personal histories and lives of others. At around 2pm, the café is not overly busy. Several customers are sat eating or waiting for their orders, a couple of tables are free – those would be later taken by the staff team who, having served freshly cooked meals to all visitors, would sit down to share the food and mood with everyone else. The menu, which is never the same and changing depending on the donated food and creativity of the volunteer who happens to be in charge of the cooking on that particular day, is written on a chalkboard. Colorful chalk pieces are scattered on the table just beneath it – visitors write down their orders on post-it-notes and send them to the kitchen. Once the order reaches the cook, all it remains for the visitors to do is to make themselves comfortable and wait for the plate full of delicious food to be served by a smiling volunteer. There is a small queue of visitors in front of the chalkboard waiting for their turn to write down an order – they can choose whatever they fancy from the menu, one item at a time. Today’s choice is rich: from cold and hot entrées to a selection of main courses to desserts – today’s menu is more on a traditional side but the chalkboard has seen such luxury ingredients as scallops and lumpfish caviar. Some meals, such as salads and pies, are prepared in advance; others are freshly cooked and served piping-hot. Once a particular dish or essential ingredients are gone, the item gets crossed out from the menu, but the kitchen never runs out of food to feed the hungry – in fact, people are encouraged to take products and leftovers home (the café is an established food bank). In order to minimize customer waste, the café operates a “finish the first plate before you get the second” policy, and although there is no limit as to how much visitors can eat, they can only make another order or treat themselves to a dessert if they finish the first helping. As childish as it may seem, the unwritten rule underpins the entire concept of the project and is used by the team to educate visitors about the waste problem. Indeed, sounds like a much nicer way to teach people to value and respect food than introducing food waste fees – an increasingly popular measure among eateries all across the world where customers are charged for uneaten food (I mentioned one such restaurant here). Another of the few rules that operate here is a strict no alcohol policy – the café is family and children friendly and no drinks are served or allowed to be consumed on the premises.
I learn all this from Sam, one of the project’s co-directors, who kindly agreed to have a chat and appease my curiosity about the café and the work of TRJFP. We talk about the origins of the project, the enthusiastic people who run and support the café, the amazing work that has been already done and the team’s ambitious plans for the future, the big and little inspirations as well as struggles that volunteers encounter every day while trying to “really feed the world”. The major challenge that the project is currently facing is financial – the café site is going on sale in early autumn and the team hopes to be able to buy it. The goal is not easy to reach – although the café does generate certain income from customer donations and has a number of supporters (sympathetic landlord has not been asking for the rent for several months, Leeds Council has granted the project business zero rates, and donations are being made by benevolent organisations, such as National Student Union, Together for Peace, and Leeds for Change), meeting the asking price of £130.000 will require significant fundraising efforts. Before leaving, I ask for a permission to have a glimpse into the kitchen. In the kitchen, there is food. A box full of ripe bananas, cuts of chicken left to slowly defrost for the big barbecue party, and countless tubs of ice cream donated by Suma (local producer of organic food) to the greatest delight of the café’s customers and staff alike.
As I leave the café, where smells of freshly prepared food mix with background music and laughter of the team members to create an enjoyable and lively atmosphere, I think of my research project and the notion of food ethics. I remember a speaker from an event at the University of London’s Institute of Philosophy who claimed that the first and foremost consumption ethics should be the availability of enough food for everyone in the world. Thinking of TRJFP and the PAYF café, I feel like I know the place where this exact notion of food ethics has materialized.